As the St Louis Cardinals set up for their final home game of the season (at least of the regular season), the home stretch can only be looked back on with a sense of loss.
On September 5, the Cards had just finished taking 2 of 3 from Washington – with Carlos Martinez earning his first save as the new Cardinal closer. They were 78-62 at that point, they trailed the Chicago Cubs by just 4.5 games, and held the second Wild Card spot, trailing Milwaukee by just a half game.
Ahead of them were 3 road games against a downtrodden Detroit club. Following that, the Cards had 13 of their next 16 at home, finishing the season with three potentially meaningful games in Chicago against the Cubs. Everything was set up before them.
The reality failed to match the anticipation. They began by losing 2 of 3 in Detroit and then lost 4 of 7 in the first home stand. Their chances swelled when they won 2 of 3 in Atlanta, but faded again as the team went only 3-2 in the first 5 games of their final home stand. The losses were especially stinging – losses to Milwaukee in the first two games of a critical series – the last one, last night’s 12-4 battering (box score).
They have responded, so far, going 9-9 with this opportunity. They are still 4.5 games behind the Cubs, but with only 4 games left, there is not enough season left to catch them. They have fallen, now 4 games behind the Brewers for that first WildCard spot, and have slipped a half-game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot.
The question, for tonight and for the last three games in Wrigley, is how will this young team respond? With an opportunity still before them and four difficult games left, how will this young team respond to this latest adversity?
Loss Leads to Loss
One of the most glaring differences between the September Cardinals and the Post-All-Star-Break Cardinals is their ability to respond to a loss.
From the beginning of the season’s second half until September 1, the Cardinals lost consecutive games just once (July 22 in Chicago and July 23 in Cincinnati). They lost a total of 13 games during that span, and were 12-1 the next game.
September began with a 3-game losing streak, and the trend hasn’t stopped. The current streak is the fourth losing streak of at least 2 games this month. The Cards – who have already lost twice as many games as they did in all of August – are just 4-7 this month following a loss.
At the center of the slide has been the pitching staff. After leading the charge through August, the pitchers have struggled greatly in the season’s final month. After last night’s melt down, the team’s September ERA sits at 4.82. The starters have been bad enough – they have thrown just 6 quality starts in 23 games with a 4.69 ERA. The bullpen has been even worse. They have served up more home runs (14) than the starters (13) even though they have pitched 26.2 fewer innings. The September bullpen ERA is now 4.98 with a .282 batting average against.
Instead of responding after a loss, the pitching staff has performed worse in their opportunities to halt a losing streak. In 11 after-loss games in September, the pitching staff boasts a 5.22 ERA. In their last 100 such innings, Cardinal pitchers have served up 17 home runs, 23 doubles and 2 triples. Opposing hitters, in games after a Cardinal loss, are slugging .469 against St Louis.
As with the month in general, bad starting pitching (only 3 quality starts and a 4.97 ERA) has been trumped by worse relief pitching (5.47 ERA and an opponent’s batting line of .275/.387/.519). In games after a loss this month, Cardinal relievers are walking 5.66 and allowing 2.01 home runs per nine innings. In these games the bullpen has accounted for almost as many innings (49.1) as the starters (50.2).
As much, perhaps, as any other number set, these numbers tell the story of the disappointing month.
While I remain very high on the future of left-handed curveballer Austin Gomber, the truth remains that in these critical September games, he hasn’t been a part of the answer. After his struggles last night, Austin hasn’t seen the fifth inning in two of his last three starts.
Gomber has had particular difficulty in the stopper role. He has a 5.68 ERA this season in games after a loss. In the second half, Austin is 2-2 in 7 games (6 starts) after a loss with a 6.52 ERA and a .302 batting average against.
In a season of turmoil in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia has emerged as a significant – if under the radar – contributor. He helped hold the team semi-close last night with 1.2 innings of scoreless, hitless relief. Over his last 13 appearances, John has pitched 13 innings, allowing just 1 run (0.69 ERA) on only 7 hits while striking out 19. The last 48 batters to face John are hitting just .159 with a .250 slugging percentage.
For the season, Brebbia has appeared in 20 games after a Cardinal loss, totaling 24.1 innings. He has a 2.59 ERA in those games, and a .222 batting average against.
Last night was also the tenth time this season the Cards asked John for more than one inning. To this point he has proved himself capable of multiple innings. In his 10.1 “additional” innings, Brebbia has allowed 3 runs (2.61 ERA) and only 8 hits (.205 batting average). A slight decline in strikeouts (9 in those 10.1 innings) is the only evidence of increased difficulty.
The game began to seriously spin out of reach once Mike Mayers came into the game. Mike’s season just will not turn around. In the course of just 14 pitches, Mike gave up two more runs on a single and a home run, extending a 7-4 deficit into a 9-4 deficit.
In his last 8 appearances (totaling 5 innings) Mayers has taken damage to the tune of 8 runs on 15 hits including 2 home runs. The last 33 batters he has faced hold a batting line of .500/.531/.833. His second-half ERA has now risen to 6.41, as batters have hit .321 and slugged .556 against him with 4 home runs in just 19.2 innings.
Brett Cecil then one-upped Mayers by serving up a three-run home run in the eighth. This has been another lost season for Cecil. His second half has been particularly devastating. In 15 games since the break, Brett has pitched 9.2 eventful innings that have seen 16 runs on 17 hits including 4 home runs. He has also walked 10 batters in those innings. The batting line against him in the second half is a sobering .370/.482/.674.
With three singles last night, Marcell Ozuna pushed his second half batting average up to .300 (66 for 220). He is hitting .310 this month (27 for 87).
Jose Martinez stayed hot. With a single and a double, Jose now has three consecutive two-hit games. He has hit in 6 of his last 7, getting two hits in 5 of the six. He is 11 for his last 27 (.407). Five of the hits are for extra-bases (4 doubles and a home run), so Martinez is slugging .667 during the streak.
Since the break, Jose is hitting .322 (65 for 202).
For all the hope that Matt Carpenter would go on another hitting tear, it hasn’t materialized yet. Hitless in three at bats last night, Carp is hitting .175 in September (14 for 80). He has 1 home run and a .250 slugging percentage this month.
Among the casualties last night was Paul DeJong’s 8-game hitting streak. Paul was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, and is still hitting just .223 for the second half. But he hit .324 (11 for 34) during the eight games, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs. He drove in 7 runs and slugged .588 in those 8 games. He had also hit safely in 15 of his previous 16 games, hitting .306 in those games. Very encouraging signs.
Jedd Gyorko had a tough night. His 0-for-3 included a strikeout and a double-play grounder. Games after a loss have not been his specialty. He has played in 54 of them, now, with a .234 average (36 for 154).
Harrison Bader also had a nice hitting streak stopped – his had been a seven-game streak, during which he hit .381 (8 for 21) with 3 doubles and 2 home runs – an .810 slugging percentage.